Val Gardena played host to the very top of elite sport this weekend, but to focus entirely on this would be only to tell a small part of the story. For me, the real eponymous “Heroes” of the race can just as well be found in the ranks of the Hobbyfahrer (more on this as a perjorative term later!); the people who have travelled from far and wide with the aim of challenging themselves against some seriously tough terrain!
Read the race report? Lakata and Dahle-Flesja took the XCM World Titles
In this respect, the Dolomites do not disappoint – everywhere is steep, either up or down. The first climb has been a cause of constant talk in many different languages since we arrived here on Wednesday, despite the bright sunshine you can see a dark shadow cross people’s faces as they almost dare not speak it’s name: Dantercepies. My over-intellecualisation of everything means I desperately want to mis-spell it as “Dante-Cepies”, just so I can quote his line about the gates of Hell “All hope abandon yea who enter here”! Whilst elite racers have been frantically swapping over their single-ring machines to an almost granny-only 28T ring, it’s great to see guys in their 50s running what they brought.
The names of the climbs are rather descriptive, in fact, as climbing the Sourasass I’m sure many agreed that the heat made for a sour ass (bit of a come-down from Dante, there…!), and let’s face it, any climb where Karl Platt says “I was in the 26-40, and I wanted more gears” has to be a brute! Probably the less said about the Pordoi (Poor-do-I), the better! The continuous presence of the Gruppo Sella as the epicentre for the route reminded us all just how far small things can go with enough determination.
As a location for a race, it’s hard to imagine anywhere more magical and more welcoming than Val Gardena. From a farmer’s market on Wednesday evening, the sleep-inspiring pine-scented pillows in the race packs, a fashion show, a tech expo, live bands, world champion trials riders, no stone has been left unturned to make us all feel at home. Whilst it’s currently hard to imagine snows on the ground, let alone the full force of winter in the valley, they get plenty of practice up here hosting international cross-country and downhill skiing events.
The race itself, as you can see from my superlative-laden description above (their chosen moniker of “Toughest mountainbike race in the Dolomites” doesn’t go nearly far enough), is pretty damned hard. 87km and 4,700m of climbing will attest to that! This left me facing something of a dilemma, made all the harder by the fact that Rachel would be racing the world champs race at the same time. To me, it all just seemed a bit too hard to race, but I tried not to make too free with that opinion before the gun went this morning. And when it did, I decided I wasn’t going to race other people, painting mental targets on their backs and ticking them off on the climbs, I was going to do something purer, I was going race the course, just to challenge myself. The reality is at these marathons, very very few of the competitors are “in” the race, and I have certainly never been close to being one of them. But somehow, going into these events with a “racer’s head” on my shoulders made them deeply dissatisfying – the reality is, I’m just not good enough to take that approach.
I started out riding these events years ago for the experience, for the new places, the fun riding, the fraternal suffering, the exciting food. How had I forgotten this? Where did I go wrong? So, when the gun went, I rode. I got my teeth into Dantercepies, but where others worried about holding the wheel, passing lines, and who was in front or behind, I just decided to hit a pace that didn’t leave me concerned I was about to go into atrial fibrillation, and allowed me to look up and see the views. And you know what? It was breathtaking! Going down, my aims were pretty similar, go fast enough that it’s fun and exciting, not so fast that it’s just terrifying. Sure, I might be a “hobbyfahrer”, a non-serious competitor who’s just there to make up the numbers, but I was going to go home with memories that weren’t just the precise machining marks on my stem.
About five hours in, somewhere in the valley before the Passo Duron, a chirpy, middle-aged, super-fit Italian man suggested we work together to catch a group in front. For a second, I had to fight back the racer’s urge, and think instead how to explain in my broken Italian that I’d had a real race-altering moment somewhere on the outskirts of Selva, and it was a kind offer, but no thanks. Of course, I failed, and instead just shook my head with a smile and a “non e possibile per me, grazie”. Sono tranquillo. So tranquillo, in fact, that when I punctured on the following descent, I don’t think I said a single expletive!
My high altitude epiphany meant I really enjoyed every minute of a marathon, for the challenge, for the desire to be a “Hero”. Sitting here in the balcony of the hotel, watching people barrelling down the last descent, wearing my compression socks and feeling ready to be poured into bed, I feel pretty damned heroic. Thankyou Val Gardena, for reminding me why I ride (not race!) marathons.
Chris and Rachel were hosted by the Val Gardena, and stayed at the very comfortable Hotel Oswald, right in the centre of town.